Friday, August 7, 2020

Cuyamaca College Arabic instructor and interpreter helps ESL students endure COVID-related hardships

In pre-pandemic times, Aklas Sheai, an adjunct Arabic instructor at Cuyamaca College, was known for the extra things, like bringing homemade desserts and snacks to share with her students.

Additionally, her yearly efforts to increase awareness of Middle Eastern culture were epic: elaborately staged events featuring students in intricate costumes she stitched herself. She also established the Middle Eastern Students Club, or MESC, to culturally engage students in and out of the classroom.  

Even with the pandemic quashing on-campus interactions, Sheai’s contributions to the college and the students she holds dear to her heart still persist. 

The Baghdad native who fled her country in 2003 during the Iraq war, arriving in the U.S. two years later, remembers the heartbreak and turmoil of her early years as a refugee. It is those hardships that will forever be ingrained in her memories that are behind her ceaseless efforts to help others.

Sheai already has a bachelor’s degree in statistics from Baghdad University, but in 2010, she earned an associate degree in social work from Cuyamaca, and in 2018 she earned a master’s degree in English as a Second Language and bilingual education from the online American College of Education. 

 A two-time recipient of the Academic Senate’s Outstanding Adjunct Faculty award, Sheai has since completed her certification in online teaching and will be teaching two online courses in the fall.

Adding to her teaching assignments, she also works in Cuyamaca College student services as an interpreter and liaison for the sizable Middle Eastern community. She notes that the pandemic has created academic roadblocks for ESL students.

“Any new student will face difficulties navigating the application and registration process to the community college system,” she said. “Add to that, cultural and linguistic barriers and the closure of the campuses due to the corona virus.”

Widely known among Arabic-speaking students as a resource for help, Sheai makes herself available through Google Voice with its voicemail and email capabilities to provide one-on-one assistance without having to provide her personal number.

“My phone has not stopped ringing since I set it up, but it also relieved many issues students  have been experiencing,” she said, describing the process of adapting Google Voice  to suit the needs of students. “They are finally able to reach a staff member in a timely manner – someone to listen to their needs, and follow up with them to solve any issues.”

Sheai has also translated to Arabic the scripts for how-to videos for the college’s YouTube channel, and translated student communications on COVID-19, as well as emergency funds, new student orientations, counseling class documents and more. 

“Aklas has been instrumental in getting ESL students interested in the college, applied, and enrolled,” said counseling dean Nicole Jones. “She is also a resource used by students throughout their academic journey. She has seen more than 2,100 drop-ins since July of last year. Students have called crying due to their desperation during this difficult time and Aklas is always there to help.”